Photo: “Rasputin and the Empress,” with Gustav von Seyffertitz, center, with Ethel Barrymore, Edward Arnold, John Barrymore, Tad Alexander and Lionel Barrymore. Photo listed on EBay. Bidding starts at $9.99.
Note: This is an encore post from 2011.
One of the best villains of the silent screen also possessed one of the most unusual and incredible names of the period. Gustav von Seyffertitz, hissable villain extraordinaire, lived up to his unbelievable name. Born in Bavaria, Germany on August 4, 1863, von Seyffertitz immigrated to America sometime in the late 1890s and soon became an actor at the Irving Place Theatre, the top German theatre in New York City.
Gustav soon became one of the outstanding actors of the troupe, receiving some of the best reviews of the entire cast. He could show off as well, as a 1902 review stated, “His manner of acting tends toward extravagance… .” In 1916, a New York paper called him “a comedian of the first rank,” as well as a fine character actor.
Late in 1902, von Seyffertitz suffered from some type of major illness, losing use of his voice for months. In February 1903, von Seyffertitz returned to the stage, receiving a warm welcome from the audience. The New York Times reported that after the performance Gustav thanked Herr Heinrich Conried, director of the theatre, expressed gratitude for recovering his voice, and reported feeling overwhelmed by the audience response.
It appears that von Seyffertitz spoke excellent English, as he also soon became the interpreter for Dr. Conried. Conried took him under his wing and trained him in stagecraft. Von Seyffertitz began stage managing, writing, and occasionally directing plays as well at the theatre.
Photo: Gavin Gordon, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Sue Carol and E. Alyn Warren in “Chasing Through Europe.” Photo listed on EBay. Bidding starts at $9.99.
This work led to producer Charles Frohman hiring him in 1907 as a director for Broadway productions. Von Seyffertitz directed four productions for Frohman and staged two others, including “Little Miss Fix-It” in 1911, which featured songs and performances by the great songwriting team of Nora Bayes and her husband Jack Norworth. He also starred in a few productions as well.
In 1909 at Harvard Stadium, he stage managed and acted two roles in a massive production of JOAN OF ARC starring Maude Adams. The production featured hundreds of actors and was highly received by critics, who praised von Seyffertitz for his work.
The movies soon came calling in 1917. In 1918 he appeared in the short “Swat the Kaiser” with Douglas Fairbanks, playing the Kaiser. Not long after this, he changed his name to G. Butler Clonbough, the name he used to direct his first feature film, “The Secret Garden,” in 1919. By 1920, he reverted to using his original name. Von Seyffertitz would go on to direct three more films.
During the silent period, von Seyffertitz appeared in big budget studio films with the likes of Marion Davies, Wallace Reid, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Greta Garbo, Louise Dresser, Betty Compson, and John Barrymore, usually playing shady characters or evildoers, but occasionally also portraying generals, doctors and lawyers. He played Moriarty in the 1922 SHERLOCK HOLMES, and appeared as the devil incarnate Mr. Grimes in Mary Pickford’s SPARROWS, among others
When sound came in, he continued in heavy character parts as well, with the likes of Dorothy Mackaill, William Powell, Gary Cooper, Bela Lugosi, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, John Barrymore and Norma Shearer. He mostly continued to play menacing figures, aided by his strong, baritone voice and recognizable profile.
Gustav died at the age of 80 on Christmas Day, 1943.